While many have bemoaned the lack of creativity in some game genres, the fear that lack of originality and creativity leads to artistic decline is nothing new. In 1946 Marcel Duchamp warned “a creative lull” will occur when artists merely continue the work that those who came before them had done. (Flanagan, 3) That said, Duchamp also points out that there is hope. Artists can still take from previous creators, they just must adapt what they take to make it their own. Duchamp’s critique is especially true today. So many games, especially those from large studios, are not of the mold-breaking variety. They are either just part of an existing series or so similar to competing games in their genre that they become indistinguishable from their competitors (eg Battlefield vs Hali vs COD). The homogeneity of games can be confounding and irritating, especially given how game-changing (pun intended) having just one radical element can be.
Take for example Bioshock. Parts of it very much fall in line with first-person shooter and action-adventure conventions. While it does take some aspects from previous titles, Bioshock’s creators also adapted it into something unique that makes it more of a critical game than your average shooter. One way they did this was by the little sister gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock the little sisters are young girls that have been bioengineered to grow ADAM (a substance used to make plasmids, which players need to use special abilities) in their bodies. Players can choose to “harvest” the little sisters, which kills them but awards the players more power.
There is also the option to save the little sisters, which allows them to live and cures them of having to grow ADAM.
Having to choose between saving or harvesting the little sisters forces players to grapple with the moral question of how much they value human life over power. (6) What makes this question so powerful in Bioshock is it is both concrete and abstract. Players experience the tangible consequence of gaining a large amount of ADAM should they harvest a sister, but should they choose to spare them then they will get to see the sister return to being a normal little girl (as opposed to a sickly glowing-eyed incubator). On an abstract level, players deal with either the guilt that they killed a child or the heartwarming knowledge that they have done the morally right thing. In addition to these consequences that occur immediately after saving or harvesting a sister, there are also implications for the game’s ending. Should players choose to save the little sisters they will get the “good” ending, but if they harvest them they will get the “bad” ending. This further drives home the importance of making moral choices by highlighting the impact they have beyond the single moment when they are made.
Bioshock is available for PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch.
Bioshock. Irrational Games, 2007. PlayStation version.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press, 2009.
One thought on “Bioshock as a Critical Game”
These game images are nightmare fuel!
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